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Sinister Speculation part 1: Autism

by Martine O'Callaghan

December 17, 2012

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Donate When President Obama said,
"Our hearts are broken today, for the parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers of these children, and for the families of the adults who were lost,"
though speaking for America, he voiced that which people all around the world were feeling on hearing the news that so many people, twenty of them little children, had lost their lives to a gun man on a murderous rampage. Although the word "senseless" was on the lips of most commentators that did not stop many bringing in guests, or themselves speculating on the mental state and neurological make up of the murderer, Adam Lanza.

Most news agencies have produced their own "timeline" of events that day. Nowhere on any of them is the point at which they themselves began to, on the basis of hearsay, postulate that Lanza was autistic and/or mentally ill.

This gallop to be the first with new details regardless of their veracity, has only compounded and complicated the grief of autistic people and parents of autistic children. Paula C. Durbin-Westby, writes in her post,  Mother with Asperger Syndrome Grieves Sandy Hook Elementary Victims:
I just want to grieve without having to worry about a different set of children- children who are growing up on the autism spectrum, or with atypical neurologies, with mental health conditions, who are not prone to violence by virtue of having these disabilities, but who could be negatively affected by assumptions that “all these people are dangerous” or even that “all these kids are going to grow up to be no good.”
It's troubling how her words echo those written not six months ago, by Kassiane S of Radical Neurodivergence Speaking,  in response to the unfounded rumours that Aurora cinema gun man, James Eagan Holmes, was on the autism spectrum. In her chilling post, Open Letter to the Media in the Wake of the Aurora Shootings, she writes;
We are not your scapegoat, and the trope of the dangerous neurodivergent is not only irresponsible, it is sloppy...Statistically speaking, we didn’t do it, and spreading the idea that we did has very real consequences that can mean life and death for us.
Preceding that statement is an "incomplete list of disabled people killed [most of whom were] Autistic or otherwise developmentally disabled." The list itself comprises twenty five entries: mostly children.

The fact that another white male has taken innocent lives sits very uncomfortably with the media, it seems. Overwhelmingly, the  features these mass murderers have in common with one another is that they are white and male. Think James Holmes, Anders Brevik and Thomas Hamilton.  There is a drive to squeeze the murderer into another, smaller group - one less like the one occupied by those reading the news and constructing the narrative of events, so that we, the public, can more readily narrow down who it is we should fear.

We have to make sense of these massacres by assuming someone or something makes the perpertrators less than human. It is easier, for some, to explain away Lanza's actions by assigning him to a group that is already stigmatised than to really examine how and why this happened or to accept that human will is, actually, unfathomable. Were it to emerge that Lanza was indeed on the autistic spectrum it would tell us little to nothing about what made him carry out his atrocious acts. The dehumanising of people with disabilities and mental illness has a long and creepy history. Judging by the reaction both in the media and on social networks, it has a very healthy future.

Further reading

Here are just a few pieces written by autistic men and women following this tragedy:

ASAN [Autistic Self Advocacy Network] Statement on Media Reports Regarding Newtown, CT Shooting

Liz Ditz of the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism has begun collating posts relating to autism and the CT shootings. Gun Violence and the search for a scapegoat, autism edition

In Response to Connecticut

Mother with Asperger Syndrome Grieves Sandy Hook Elementary Victims

Plea from the scariest kid on the block

When Children Die, It’s Time to Grieve and to Reflect, Not to Scapegoat

by Martine O'Callaghan

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